Zelophehad’s Daughters

Pieces of My Feminist History (Part 3)

Posted by Lynnette

As I mentioned in my last post, I wasn’t planning to study theology when I went off to grad school. But once I started, I fell in love with it. I’ve blogged before about how it affected my faith more generally. But here I want to mention some of the issues that came up which were particularly related to my developing feminism, and mention some of the questions I was thinking about.

In looking back at old email and journal entries for this series, I ran across something striking. From an email to Eve (at the time I was still in my grad history program):

The people I work with are all pretty strong feminists, which is fine, but if they want to know how Mormons feel about women that’s a hard thing for me, because of course I feel enough loyalty to the Church that I don’t want to start bashing it and saying that I think it’s sexist (although I don’t have a problem saying that to you or other fellow Mormons—you know how it is!) Someone had read Secret Ceremonies or whatever that book is—do you know which one I’m talking about—the woman who married some guy that told her he had a revelation that she was the one, so then when she left the Church (and divorced the guy) she wrote this exposé? So anyway, the woman who read it asked me if it was true that a woman needed a man to get to heaven, so I basically explained that yes, but it would probably be important to also know that a man couldn’t get to heaven without a woman.

That question of how to represent the church to others was one which would haunt me for a long time. On the one hand, I felt the pressure to talk in faith-promoting ways. On the other, I wanted to be honest. And this issue became more acute when I started doing academic work in religion, because it wasn’t a subject that came up occasionally—it was my life. The question of how best to engage in interfaith dialogue wasn’t a hypothetical one; it was something I confronted every day. And I realized that I couldn’t whitewash things, that to have authentic conversations with others, I needed to talk about things that frustrated me, including sexism.

Especially early on, this caused me a lot of anxiety. But I gradually came to find that people appreciated my honesty, that they didn’t want to hear the party line—they wanted to hear what I actually thought, and they actually had more respect for Mormonism when I talked about the complexities of the tradition. I did my MTS (Master of Theological Studies) at a Catholic school, and I found that many Catholics were quite sympathetic to the situation of belonging to a church that was a core part of your identity and beliefs, while at the same time wrestling with deep disagreements. It was always intriguing to compare notes with Catholic feminists. I loved that I felt like there was room to process those issues.

I also got exposed to a lot of feminist theology, and while of course I had my disagreements, I loved reading it, and thinking about whether it would apply to my own tradition. We had a family email group by this time, which was a great place for me to hash out religious issues:

Today we talked in my Catholicism class about how God is beyond gender, and how using the label “he” for God only reinforces sexist notions and causes males to think that they should be in charge. It really causes mixed feelings for me to hear that kind of conversation. On the one hand, I’m not opposed to the fact that we as Mormons have embodied God—I think it can be a very positive element of our theology. But I do think other Christians have a point about sexist language. If God is a “he,” it privileges the male—there’s no two ways about it. And I have to admit that I like in some ways that my classes in general won’t talk about God using gendered language—there is something liberating about that.

. . . Which is not to say that there aren’t answers, at least potentially, in LDS theology. They just aren’t very actualized at the moment, because Heavenly Father is protecting Heavenly Mother from her children. Which is why we tell all women that they are mothers and they should thus spend their lives hiding from children, so they don’t get contaminated.

I also wrote a lot about the disjunct between my experiences at school and my experiences at church:

It’s also nice, I must say, to be in an environment of religious people who take for granted that sexism in religion is a bad thing. I often don’t feel like my own religious community is anywhere close to even making that admission.

For me, another telling point is actually that other churches even talk about problems of sexism, whereas in Mormonism it seems that we don’t talk about it because it isn’t a problem. That’s something I really hunger for; even acknowledgement that there is a problem. And yet it goes back to this issue of whether I should even have a problem  in a church which claims to have the ideal for women.

One of the questions I periodically came back to was that of methodology:

Well, sometimes it seems like the issue of taking writing seriously leads to a lot of very difficult questions in religion, as I’m sure all of us have encountered as we’ve tried to make sense of our own scriptural texts. What do you do with sexist passages in the Bible? You can throw them out and decide to instead focus on the more egalitarian ones, but what justifies the practice of privileging the stuff you like? Some contemporary feminists will set as their norm the full humanity and equality of women and men, and judge scripture through that light. That certainly sounds good, and yet I am fundamentally uneasy with it, because I do not think theology should be based on current political trends, no matter how appealing; if theology is simply our ideas about what it means to be human, it isn’t theology anymore. But it’s a knotty question, because I’m not about to swallow the sexist stuff, either.

When it came to church attendance during this time, I alternated between being fairly active, and being more erratic in my attendance. Church was hard in ways that I found difficult to articulate. I felt like I was inevitably on the margins, but I also felt guilty for not trying harder. I wrote in my journal, “how can you explain what it is to feel alienated and excluded, not by people’s conscious intent, but by the social structure itself, by doctrine you aren’t sure you can swallow, by all of that? And then I feel bad, because I don’t make an effort to fit in, because I hide.” When Sheri Dew gave her famous “Are We Not All Mothers?” talk in the General Relief Society Meeting in the fall of 2001, I walked out. (I don’t think I’ve been to a General RS meeting since then.)

I moved back to Utah after finishing my degree, and attended the local singles ward. This could have been much worse, but some of the people in the ward were old friends, and I had some great ecclesiastical leaders who were very supportive with some of the life challenges I was dealing with at the time. My calling was to work in the library, and the other librarian and I spent a lot of time goofing off. As long as I didn’t bring up feminism and other questions, things were okay. (When I did occasionally say what I really thought to someone in the ward, it usually ended with the other person giving canned answers, and me in tears. I hated that I still cried so easily when this stuff came up.)

I also struggled with how to address the variety of female experience in the church. I wrote in our email group:

I’m thinking about why this issue is so hard and why we don’t seem to be able to talk about it. It’s the kind of thing that can make me crazy, because to me it’s so utterly obvious that the church is pervaded with sexism that someone shouldn’t even have to point it out, you know? So I find it unbelievable that others honestly might not see it. But this becomes a really sticky issue—if other women honestly don’t feel oppressed, who am I to tell them that they are? Do you know what I mean? I think the problem is maybe that, even though I am not out to turn all Mormon women into feminists and convert them into my point of view (really!), the implications of my experience and my views of the church are serious. Honestly, all I want is for people to acknowledge my experience as valid, my concerns as real, but as I’m thinking about this, I’m wondering whether . . . even that acknowledgement could be getting into murky waters—if I really have experienced the church as oppressive, what does that say about the church, and so forth.

In 2003, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an article in the SL Trib titled “Where Have All the Mormon Feminists Gone?” The apparent decline of Mormon feminism was both depressing and perplexing:

I’m not sure what to think about the disappearance of Mormon feminism. Is it because women aren’t as bothered, or is it because the bothered ones are more likely to just leave than to stay and try to change things?

What’s weird to me about the disappearance of Mormon feminism is that I know so many feminists in other Christian traditions where (from my point of view) you might think that feminism might not be as necessary anymore. (They would probably point out, however, that any Christian female has to deal with a legacy of sexism that is embedded in our canonical texts.) But it seems that a church like ours, especially in the cultural context of America where egalitarianism is highly valued, would keep on producing feminists.

But while I brought up these issues frequently in informal conversation, I was still careful. I was somewhat hesitant to do academic work in Mormon feminism, and I wouldn’t have even considered doing something like presenting at Sunstone. The climate of fear which resulted from the September Six and other excommunications had definitely left its mark on me, and I had no desire to get into ecclesiastical trouble.

I moved to Northern California in the fall of 2003, to start a PhD program in theology. This time, getting out of Utah didn’t help much; I still found church incredibly difficult, and I continued to alternate between going regularly and taking long breaks. It was less an issue of disagreeing with a lot of things–though of course, that was always there. But even more, I simply struggled with the sense that I would never fit into a Mormon context. I was older and single (already a strike against me), and in some basic way I felt like I just didn’t have a Mormon personality.

But in 2005, I encountered something that would change my life in ways I never would have initially anticipated. In March of that year, I read about FMH in the New York Times, and passed the link along to my siblings with the comment, “This is a blog by ‘Mormon feminist housewives’ that some of you might find interesting. I  looked it over the other day, and it seems to be made up of committed Mormons who nonetheless aren’t happy about the Church and gender.”

(to be continued)

6 Responses to “Pieces of My Feminist History (Part 3)”

  1. 1.

    “how can you explain what it is to feel alienated and excluded, not by people’s conscious intent, but by the social structure itself, by doctrine you aren’t sure you can swallow, by all of that? And then I feel bad, because I don’t make an effort to fit in, because I hide.”

    This is EXACTLY how I felt in Relief Society today. Of course, I could never articulate it as well as you have, but this is it. For a long time when I was uncomfortable at church, I always thought it was more of a social thing–that because of my own difficulties with getting to know people, I had trouble fitting in. But more and more I realize that I am uncomfortable with the structure itself.

    Anyway, thank you again for a wonderful post.

  2. 2.

    OH I LOVE YOU.

  3. 3.

    I’m really enjoying this series, Lynnette.

    But I gradually came to find that people appreciated my honesty, that they didn’t want to hear the party line—they wanted to hear what I actually thought, and they actually had more respect for Mormonism when I talked about the complexities of the tradition.

    That seems to be true in my limited experience too. This is one reason I’m happy that people like Kristine Haglund, Joanna Brooks, and Matt Bowman are so often appearing as public faces of Mormonism.

  4. 4.

    “But I gradually came to find that people appreciated my honesty, that they didn’t want to hear the party line—they wanted to hear what I actually thought, and they actually had more respect for Mormonism when I talked about the complexities of the tradition.”

    This is exactly it. People aren’t looking for the advertising, they are looking for the reality of faith when they ask.

  5. 5.

    It does raise a lot of concerns that God is referred to as He so often, concerning the detrimental effects it has on women. I think it is really awesome that other religions are not afraid to talk about sexism, and the ways to counter it. That seems much more possible in a religion where God has no physical body, and can be viewed as genderless. We believe in both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. I feel that the same message that “men are in charge” is unavoidable in LDS teachings where Heavenly Mother is essentially absent, and leadership roles are dependent on holding the Priesthood.

    I think it would be cool if, in addition to claims that the male pronouns etc. in the scriptures applies to women also, that references to God in the scriptures apply to Heavenly Mother also. That would be an awesome revelation!

    Anyway, I love hearing your history. Thanks for writing these posts.

  6. 6.

    [...] at Zelophehad’s Daughters, Lynnette has written a series of posts about the pieces of her feminist history. While there are a lot of different, interesting things to cover (what can I [...]

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